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Preseason Week 1, Cowboys vs. Bengals: What We Learned

Jonathan Bales

Last week, I published 19 things for you to watch in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame game.  Well, here is what we learned regarding each of those issues.

Note: Let’s remember this is just one preseason game.  Some things we learned are useful (such as the fact that John Phillips, before he tore his ACL, may have been the Cowboys’ most improved player), while some things we think we learned are meaningless (such as notes about playcalling, which tends to be very basic this time of the year).

1. How much will the starters play?

The Cowboys starters, as predicted, stayed in the game for one series.  The lone exception was fullback Deon Anderson, although he isn’t a starter per se, just the No. 1 guy at his position.  I though left tackle Doug Free might get a little extra work, but he was sensational in his limited action and came out with the rest of the ones.

2. Will the first-string offense score on their first drive?

They scored, but it was just a field goal.  The red zone offense stalled again, though Tony Romo said they used very “vanilla” stuff down there.  Tight end Jason Witten was not targeted in four plays inside the five-yard line (although one was negated due to a defensive penalty and one was actually a designed run).

3. How will new Bengal Terrell Owens be treated by his former Dallas teammates?

Pretty well, in fact.  Owens spent a good amount of time with many of his former Cowboys teammates on Saturday, including Roy Williams, Tashard Choice, Terence Newman, Jay Ratliff, Patrick Crayton, and Martellus Bennett.

On the other hand, it doesn’t look like Owens and Romo will be exchanging gifts at Christmas.

4. How will Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins perform against “Batman” (T.O.) and “Robin” (Chad Ochocinco)?

There really wasn’t a large enough sample size of plays to draw any conclusions about this one.  T.O. caught a ball on Jenkins on a short ‘out’ route, but that’s about it.  Overall, the Cowboys’ first-team defense looked good against a potent Cincy offense.

5. Who will step up in the tight race for the fourth cornerback job?

No one particularly stepped up, although rookie Jamar Wall struggled badly.  He gave up a plethora of receptions to Matt Jones and looked lost in coverage.  He has an uphill battle ahead of him to make the roster.

Undrafted rookie Bryan McCann was back deep on a couple punts but never got a chance to return one.  Veteran Cletis Gordon appears to have the early lead for the fourth cornerback spot.

6. How will Alan Ball tackle?

Well, he didn’t really have an opportunity.  Ball didn’t make a tackle on the night, but the Bengals never really moved the ball too close to him.

7. Will Anthony Spencer, who has a bruised Achilles tendon, receive any reps?

Surprisingly, yes.  Spencer started and played the first series.

8. If Spencer doesn’t start, who will replace him:  Victor Butler or Brandon Williams?

Spencer’s start meant we couldn’t determine whether Butler or Williams would have been his primary backup, although Butler is listed as the second-string strong side outside linebacker.  Williams initially figured to be superior against the run, but Butler showed marked improvement over last year’s poor missed tackle rate.  He chased down ball-carriers from the weak side multiple times, displaying tremendous pursuit.  Butler also appears to have added some muscle.

9. Will either Robert Brewster or Sam Young, both of whom have played well at offensive tackle during training camp, step up in their first game action?

Neither player shined, although Brewster really played poorly.  He got dominated at both right tackle and left tackle (he moved to the left side after Alex Barron’s injury), although he did appear to be more natural on the right side.  There is a possibility the Cowboys kick Brewster inside to guard if they plan to keep him on the 53-man roster.

10. Will left tackle Alex Barron limit his false starts and outperform starter Doug Free?

Barron didn’t false start, but he was heavily outperformed by Free.  Barron yielded a sack and some pressure at left tackle, while starter Doug Free looked magnificent.  He stoned Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom a few times and even looked comfortable in run blocking.

11. Will we see left guard Kyle Kosier play any center?

No, but his time is coming.

12. Is Titus Ryan really the No. 1 kick and punt returner?

As of now, yes.  That will change once rookie Dez Bryant returns from his high ankle sprain, but right now Ryan is the guy.  He had a solid return of the opening kickoff, showing some burst and “wiggle,” but he looked uneasy fielding punts.

13. How will David Buehler perform on both field goals and kickoffs?

Despite going three-of-four on field goals, Buehler struggled.  He missed a 49-yard attempt by a mile and even his made field goals didn’t look great.  None of them were longer than 34 yards and a couple just snuck in the uprights.  He also almost missed an extra point.

On kickoffs, Buehler looked phenomenal once again.  His five kickoffs traveled to the six-yard line, two yards deep, five yards deep, six yards deep, and out of the back of the end zone.

14. How will offensive coordinator Jason Garrett use tight end/H-Back John Phillips?

Early and often.  Phillips was the Cowboys’ offensive MVP before going down with a torn ACL.  It is really unfortunate for a player who was coming on so strong to begin the preseason.

15. Will the Cowboys run more to the weak side?

Yes!  The Cowboys ran to the weak side 19.5 percent of plays last season, averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry (as opposed to just 4.7 on strong side runs).

Dallas ran to the weak side seven times for 37 yards (5.29 yards-per-carry) on Sunday night.  They ran to the strong side 14 times for 30 yards (2.14 yards-per-carry).  The rest of the runs came in balanced formations, and thus there was no strong or weak side.

The sample size is obviously small, but a weak side run rate of 33.3 percent is a huge jump from last season.  We will see how much the Cowboys continue to run to the weak side the rest of the preseason.

Note: I am not counting a scramble by Stephen McGee for six yards into these totals.

16. How many plays will the Cowboys run out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right”?

The good news is the Cowboys only ran three plays out of “Double Tight Strong.”  Last season, they lined up in the formation over seven times a game.

The bad news is the playcalling from the formation has not yet changed.  The Cowboys ran a strong side dive on all three plays from “Double Tight Strong.”  Here is my in-depth analysis of Dallas’ 2009 usage of the formation.  Last season, they ran that same strong side dive on 71.6 percent of all plays from “Double Tight Strong.”

17. How often (and when) will Dallas run playaction passes?

Dallas ran six playaction passes on Sunday night out of 44 total pass plays (13.6 percent).  That fits well with the 15.1 percent rate from last season.

Two of the six playaction passes were screens.  If you remember from my study on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes, the screen rate more than tripled following a play-fake (from 7.1 percent on non-playaction passes to 22.9 percent on playaction passes). That trend may be here to stay.

Dallas also yielded one sack on a playaction pass against the Bengals.

18. What will the Cowboys do in the red zone to improve?

Well, not much, but it is only one game.  I completed a study detailing why teams should run more inside the 10-yard line, but the Cowboys passed three straight times while inside the five during their first drive.

However, the Cowboys did have one 1st and Goal run play nullified due to a defensive penalty (and a Felix Jones fumbled), and they actually called a pass play on the subsequent 1st and Goal from the two-yard line.  Romo attempted a back shoulder fade to Roy Williams, though, and overthrew him.

Jason Witten was also not out in a route on two of the three ‘Goal-To-Go’ pass plays, although the first one was a designed run, so we obviously wouldn’t expect him to be in a route.  He stayed in to block on 2nd and Goal, then went out into a route on 3rd and Goal.

19. Will the ‘Boys run more on 3rd down?

These statistics are of course very situational with the limited sample size, but Dallas ran three times on 3rd down–twice with a single yard-to-go and once on 3rd and 6.  The Cowboys converted only one of the three plays for a first down.

Despite their failures against Cincy, I still think the ‘Boys should run more on third down.


Note:  I have just finished breaking down Sunday’s game film and I will be posting final observations and player grades tonight/tomorrow.


From the Archives: Analyzing Cowboys Weak Side Runs and Using Game Theory on Offense

By Jonathan Bales

Throughout my film study articles, I have chronicled the trends of the Cowboys in certain specific situations, attempting to isolate the cause of their success or failure.   Some statistics are subjective, such as missed tackles, but I strive to obtain statistics that are objective as possible.

In this study, I will analyze the Cowboys’ weak side runs.  Like prior pieces, there is some “gray area” here.   What is a weak side run?  Is the weak side always opposite the tight end?

For this analysis, I have designated the weak side of the formation as that which is opposite the tight end and has less than three skill position players.  Thus, in “Twins Left,” the right side is the strong side. In “Twins Left, Weak Left” (below), however, the left side is strong.

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).   These formations were not counted toward my results.

The findings I gathered are listed below.   The Cowboys averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, compared to just 4.7 yards-per-carry on strong side runs.

Why did the Cowboys have more success running weak side than strong?   One possibility is that it surprises the defense. Dallas ran weak side on just 19.5 percent of all run plays. Thus, with the defense generally anticipating a strong side run, the success rate of running weak side increases despite a lesser number of blockers.

The lack of blockers to the weak side can also be a good thing because defenses generally line up according to the formation.   Less blockers, then, means less people to block, and less chance for mistake.

Still, if this theory is correct, we might expect the Cowboys percentage of big plays to increase significantly when running weak side.  This is actually not the case.  The Cowboys ran for a play of 10+ yards on 15.3 percent of all weak side run plays in 2009, compared to 14.5 percent on all strong side runs. This small difference is not statistically significant enough for us to draw meaningful conclusions.

Further, the percentage of negative runs is also approximately the same (9.4 percent on weak side runs versus 11.0 percent on all strong side runs).

With this lack of outliers, it appears as though weak side runs are just slightly more effective for the Cowboys than strong side runs. The results are not simply skewed by a pair of 80-yard rushes, for example.

How should this information affect the Cowboys and Jason Garrett’s play-calling?  Well, as I detailed in my Witten blocking study, the play-calling should shift until it reaches the “Nash Equilibrium.”   Simply put, this is the point when the overall yards-per-rush will peak.

Jason Garrett will maximize offensive efficiency by always being one step ahead of defensive coordinators.

Note that Garrett cannot simply call all weak side runs because football is a game of opposing minds.   A drastic increase in weak side runs would obviously be met by a large percentage of defensive weak side blitzes.

Instead, game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

That may be the motto for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys– “maximize your potential.”   Should they do that, the team might just be playing in the first ever home Super Bowl.


Your Ultimate Playaction Pass Guide: Dallas Cowboys Style

By Jonathan Bales

**Note:  This is a combination of two previous studies I have conducted on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.

As a team whose offensive core is a power running attack, the Cowboys should and do incorporate the playaction pass into their offensive repertoire. Teams generally have success running when the defense anticipates pass, and vice versa, and the playaction pass is one of the most successful tools a team can utilize in exploiting a defense which incorrectly guesses the play-call.

One might think, then, that the Cowboys would try to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense by running effectively and then taking shots deep using playaction passes.  As I studied the 2009 game film, however, this did not seem to be the case.

The Cowboys had no more success on playaction passes than on straight dropbacks. As the graph to the left shows, Romo averaged 8.3 yards-per-pass on playaction passes throughout the season, compared to 8.1 yards-per-attempt on all other pass plays.

This difference is not statistically significant, particularly when we take into account two factors.   First, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on the 91 playaction passes, or 8.7 percent of all playaction pass plays, compared to 26 sacks yielded on the other 467 pass attempts (5.6 percent).   Thus, the .2 yard difference in average between playaction and non-playaction passes is negated by the increased sack rate.

The reason for the increased sack rate seems apparent enough.  With his back turned to the defense, Tony Romo is less likely to be able to elude defenders who may sneak through the protection.  Further, offensive linemen frequently fire off the ball during playaction passes as to resemble their blocking on run plays, and this difference in pass protection technique could be a factor in the increased sack percentage.

The second reason one might assume the yards-per-pass difference is not significant is because the playaction average should be higher (and by more so than just .2 yards) since the Cowboys are more likely to use these plays in situations where a big play can be had.  Playaction passes are utilized to draw linebackers and safeties up toward the line of scrimmage, opening holes behind them in which to throw.

But did the Cowboys really utilize playaction to take shots down the field?   Not at all.  In fact, of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

It is quite apparent that Dallas did not take enough shots downfield on playaction passes, doing so at less than half the rate of regular dropbacks.  This surely had an impact on the sub-par yards-per-play playaction average.

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction.  According to my film study (stats shown below), Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent).  That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).

Dallas threw an inordinate amount of screens and passes to the right when showing playaction.

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable play-caller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field.  Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

While Jason Garrett is certainly not always completely responsible for where the ball gets thrown, Romo’s reads are premeditated.   This stat shows that Romo’s first read, as called by Garrett, is generally to the right side of the field on playaction passes.  The massive differential between throws to the left and throws to the right is large enough for it to be statistically significant.

Ultimately, whether or not Garrett’s playcalling is indeed predictable, the fact that Dallas did not utilize the playaction pass to garner big plays appears indisputable.

Other Thoughts and Wacky Stats

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from my 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with playaction passes:

  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.

The number of plays on the season in that range: 132.  Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run).   I wouldn’t call myself an offensive mastermind, but that just doesn’t seem efficient.

With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all playaction passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

The Cowboys ran so few playaction passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.  Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a playaction pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more playaction pass (the 15.6 percent playaction pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).

I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on playaction when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four playaction passes with 1-4 yards to go, but they also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on playaction passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season.  They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran playaction passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Ultimately, I would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction attack as average.  One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on playaction passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on playaction passes as compared to all other pass attempts.

However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on playaction passes.  Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a playaction look at over three times the normal rate.  These factors surely contributed to the relatively low playaction pass average.

One final note

The Cowboys did have success with play-action passes out of one formation in particular: “Ace.”  I’ve spoken before about why the ‘Boys should throw more out of “Ace” and other “running” formations.

Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were playaction passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays.  Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.


From the Archives: Effectiveness of Tony Romo’s Audibles

By Jonathan Bales

I recently headed into my film study database to decipher Tony Romo’s effectiveness when he audibles out of the original play call. Sometimes Romo will actually call an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage, while other times he will simply signal for the team to check into the second play which was called in the huddle (the team often calls two plays in the huddle, planning to run the first unless Romo checks out).

The latter scenario is marked by a phrase many of you have probably heard the Dallas’ quarterback yelling on television, “Kill, Kill, Kill!”  When you hear this, Romo sees something in the defense that makes him believe the first play called in the huddle will be unsuccessful.   The second play, which is the one run after the “Kill” call, is generally dissimilar to the original call to combat whatever problem Romo noticed.

Note that the Cowboys really have very little incentive to use “dummy” audibles.  Nearly every check they made in 2009 (75 of 79) was a “Kill” call.  These calls give the defense little strategic advantage, as they do not know either play which was called in the huddle.  Thus, because there’s no important information being conveyed at the line of scrimmage, there’s not really anything to cover up with a “dummy” call.

I tracked every play during which Romo called an audible all season, and here are the results:

As you can see, Romo checked out of a play 79 times in 2009, which equates to 4.9 per game and 8.0 percent of all plays.   The Cowboys were much more successful when Romo audibled into a run, which he did 59.5 percent of the time he checked.  They averaged 5.8 yards-per-rush on all run audibles, a full yard better than their season average.  They were not as successful on pass audibles, however, averaging a half yard less per attempt than their season average.

One possible explanation for the lower productivity in the passing game after checks is that defenses are more prepared to defend the pass after an audible.  They may assume an audible by the opposing quarterback means he sees an opportunity for a big play, probably a pass, thus making them more likely to effectively defend the pass.

So should the effectiveness of the run force Romo to check into a run play more often than the current 59.5 percent rate?  Not necessarily.  That percentage is already rather high, and if it would increase to say, 70.0 percent, the defense would have a great indication as to the play-call.

Further, there are times when Romo is even more efficient with his audibles, both when they result in a run and a pass.  These times are when the opposing defense shows blitz (only lines up as if they will blitz, but does not necessarily blitz), and the results are below.

Of the 79 times that Romo checked on the season, the defense was showing blitz at the time on 30 of those plays.  The Cowboys gained 237 total yards on these checks, gaining 1.9 more yards-per-rush against the blitz than their season average, and 1.5 extra yards-per-pass.  The sample size of 30 plays may be low, but probably significant enough to conclude that Romo is more effective in making audible calls when he perceives blitz.

Also notice Romo checked to a pass 56.7 percent of the time during these situations, compared to just 40.5 percent overall.  This may be because Romo is more comfortable putting the pressure on himself to make a play when the offense is facing pressure.

While this higher pass-to-run ratio could also be influenced by the fact that teams are more likely to blitz during passing downs, it probably is not too much of a factor, as the Cowboys would already have a pass called and would be much less likely to even audible.

So why is Romo more efficient making checks when the defense shows blitz?  One explanation is that Romo is just more effective versus the blitz in general.  This could reveal some of the success, but it probably cannot account for the full two yard difference in average yards-per-pass.  Further, Romo’s ability versus the blitz does not explain the increase in rushing average when he checks after seeing blitz.

Thus, we must conclude that Romo is generally effective in making audibles, but much more so when he believes a blitz is coming. This does not necessarily mean that he should check out of more plays when he perceives blitz, but perhaps increasing the number of audibles during these situations until the yards-per-play average peaks may result in an even more effective Dallas Cowboys offense.


From the Archives: A Statistical View of FB Deon Anderson’s Importance

Deon Anderson's plays per game remained relatively steady, while John Phillips saw a sharp spike in playing time when he was the second TE versus San Diego and New Orleans.

By Jonathan Bales

With training camp on the horizon, I wanted to reexamine an old study I completed on the importance of fullback Deon Anderson.  Anderson’s future in Dallas is cloudy with possible gun charges looming.  Is his skill level vital enough to the Cowboys to justify his stay on a suddenly squeaky clean roster?

The emergence of rookie John Phillips in 2009 seemed to be a road block in Anderson’s progress.   If Phillips’ blocking was at all comparable to Anderson’s, the versatility and pass-catching skill he exhibits might make him a better fit as an H-back type hybrid player.  Thus, the Cowboys could exit training camp without a true fullback on the roster.

As always, I dove into my film study database to determine just how valuable Deon Anderson was this past season in both the running and passing games.   The results were rather shocking.

Deon Anderson’s blocking ability, it appears, was sorely under-appreciated, especially by me.  Meanwhile, John Phillips’ youth shown through, as he was quite over-matched in the run game.

Anderson was on the field for 294 plays in 2009, while Phillips was in the Cowboys’ offensive package on 141 plays (a breakdown of each player’s plays-per-game is above).  Below is a chart detailing the effectiveness of each player.   Note that the sample size of plays for each player is large enough that we can discern meaningful, statistically-significant conclusions.

Dallas' yards-per-rush when Anderson was in the game was enormously higher than when Phillips was in the lineup, yet the yards-per-pass, surprisingly, remained about equal.

As you can see, the yards-per-rush for the Cowboys when Deon Anderson was in the ball game was significantly better than when Phillips was in the lineup. Anderson’s 5.6 average is even more impressive when considering the large sample size of 221 rushes.

Further, defenses are even more likely to be in a “jumbo” package (the big boys) with Anderson in the game, knowing the Cowboys pass the ball less than one-fourth of the time he is in the lineup.  The fact that Dallas still managed 5.6 yards-per-carry against the defenses’ best run-stoppers is stunning.

Phillips’ average of 3.7 yards-per-rush is particularly poor for a team that rushed the ball so well over the course of the season, and the sample size of 92 runs is large enough for us to conclude that the 1.9 yards-per-carry difference is due to a significant drop-off in blocking ability from Anderson to Phillips.

Perhaps even more surprising than these results, however, is the fact that the team’s yards-per-pass average was higher with Deon Anderson in the lineup.  While the .23 yard difference may be negligible, the fact that Deon Anderson provided the necessary protection to average the same yards-per-pass as a pass-catching threat like Phillips is meaningful.

While Phillips did snag seven balls (targeted nine times) for 62 yards (as opposed to Anderson’s one catch for 5 yards), his blocking ability is not yet refined enough to force opposing defenses to stay in their base personnel when he is in the game.  The team’s slightly better yards-per-pass average when Anderson is in the game also shows that his pass blocking makes up for this drop-off in receiving skills.

Thus, we must conclude that Deon Anderson’s blocking ability in both the running and passing games makes him a much better option at fullback than John Phillips at this time.  This is not to say, of course, that Phillips will not improve and become a better blocker, as he was only a rookie last season.  Phillips appears to have the work ethic and demeanor necessary to improve his game, but right now Deon Anderson, contrary to first glance, is much more valuable than any of us had thought.


Dallas Cowboys 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

Buy your Dez Bryant Cowboys jersey now. . .

By Jonathan Bales

Last week, I published a comparison of Dallas Cowboys offensive player efficiency rankings.  This comparison listed our own grades and those of a few well-regarded football statistics companies.

The point of this was to make an attempt to “normalize” playing conditions (teammates, situations, and so on) to determine a particular player’s true value.

In that article, I wrote:

There have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players.  In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now.  Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot. Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added. We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football. EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another. If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive. If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line). Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

Another source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus. PFF is different from ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings. Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play. You can read more about their methodology here.

Today, I will be comparing the Cowboys defensive player values from ANS and PFF with our own.

NR=Not Rated


  • Neither ANS or PFF rated Jay Ratliff any higher than the 12th best defensive tackle in the NFL.

I was slightly down on Ratliff as well, giving him an overall grade of 87.0, but to nowhere near the degree of ANS or PFF.  A reader recently pointed out that Ratliff also played injured all season (and played too many snaps at that).  His efficiency will increase in 2010.

  • PFF rated defensive ends Igor Olshansky, Stephen Bowen, and Jason Hatcher as nearly identical.  Marcus Spears was not far behind.

This fits very well with my defensive end grades.  While I had Olshansky rated a bit higher than the others, the interchangeability of all four defensive ends allows them to stay fresh.

  • ANS was extremely down on DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, rating them as the 18th and 20th most efficient linebackers in the NFL.

There is a caveat here.  ANS ranks all linebackers together and their methodologies reward inside linebackers (who acquire more tackles) more than outside linebackers.  Nonetheless, they still had Ware and Spencer rated as just the sixth and seventh most efficient 3-4 outside linebackers, behind James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Aaron Kampman, Terrell Suggs, and Manny Lawson.  You can see my grades of Ware and Spencer here. I personally recently rated them as the first and third-best 3-4 OLBs in the NFL.

  • The opinions on Keith Brooking varied from the 11th best linebacker in the league to the 50th.

I would probably say he is somewhere in between, although his 2009 game film stood out enough to me for me to provide him a rather high 87.6 percent overall grade–the fifth highest of any Cowboys defensive player.

  • We are unanimous in noticing that Bobby Carpenter is bad.

Very, very bad.

  • Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins had very comparable 2009 seasons.

ANS rated Newman slightly higher, while PFF gave Jenkins the nod.  I had Jenkins edging out Newman by a hair in my 2009 cornerback grades, due solely to his three extra interceptions.

  • By everyone’s observations, Orlando Scandrick had a down year.

He was targeted more than just about any cornerback in the NFL last season, but I am expecting a breakout year for him in 2010.  Here are nine other Cowboys players who will break out in 2010.

  • Both ANS and PFF rated safety Gerald Sensabaugh ahead of fellow starter Ken Hamlin, although neither were particularly outstanding.

I gave Hamlin the superior grade because his primary job in Dallas was generally to make sure the defense didn’t allow big plays–a job he performed quite well, even last season.  He was also an underrated tackler, missing tackles at half the rate of Sensabaugh (8.0 percent compared to 15.6 percent), despite playing a position–free safety–which is perhaps the most difficult on the field from which to secure a tackle.


10 Dallas Cowboys Players Who Will Break Out in 2010


By Jonathan Bales

Last season, a few breakout players helped turn around the Cowboys’ season, most notably Miles Austin.  Following a Week Four loss in Denver, the ‘Boys were reeling.  Starting receiver Roy Williams got injured, opening the door for Austin’s 10 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win in Kansas City.  Who knows how the team’s season who have unfolded without Austin’s presence in K.C.?

This season, a variety of players are primed for breakout seasons.  In uncovering these players, I like to look at statistics which are not generally utilized, but still provide an idea of how efficiently a player can perform.  Defensive end Jason Hatcher, for example, racked up 17 quarterback pressures in 2009, yet totaled just one sack.  With his snap count figuring to increase, the rate at which Hatcher reaches the quarterback could put him in line for six, seven, even eight sacks this season.

Below are 10 Cowboys players who are ready to become household names.  Click on a player to see in-depth statistics detailing his ’09 performance (or a scouting report for rookies).

10.  Doug Free

A lot is riding on the shoulders of Free–perhaps more so than any “new” Cowboys starter.  Free will have to beat out newly-acquired Alex Barron to win the starting left tackle job.  On paper, his athleticism and quick feet make him a natural fit for the left side.

Prediction: If Free starts every game and can yield less than six sacks, he did his job.  Also expect him to give up in the vicinity of seven hits and 25 pressures.

9.  Alan Ball

I just posted an analysis of a potential Alan Ball/Michael Hamlin training camp battle.  Ball’s coverage ability should be enough for him to retain the job, but he needs to upgrade his tackling.  Like Free, the competition behind Ball should force him to be at his best.

Prediction: The Cowboys are in dire need of a play-making safety.  Will Ball be that guy?  Expect him to be in the neighborhood of 3-5 interceptions.

8.  Stephen Bowen

With starter Marcus Spears a restricted free agent, the Cowboys figure to increase Bowen’s reps as the season progresses.  There is even talk of Bowen starting over Spears immediately.

While I expect Spears to remain the starter, Bowen will come in on more and more running downs (only 99 of his 484 total snaps came against the run).

Prediction: Expect Bowen to secure close to 600 snaps this season, including about 175 against the run.

7.  Felix Jones

Okay, so Jones has basically already broken out–but only in terms of efficiency (yards-per-carry), not totals.  In his short career, Jones has yet to reach 1,000 total rushing yards and has tallied just seven all-purpose touchdowns.

To take his game to the next level, Jones needs to stay healthy enough to obtain the touches necessary for big-time production.  With offensive coordinator Jason Garrett supplying him the ball more (particularly on counters, tosses, and so on), he will put up big numbers in 2010.

Prediction: Expect Jones to get about 200 carries this season, surpass 1,000 rushing yards, and score approximately eight total touchdowns.  He could also approach 40 receptions.

6.  Sean Lee

I’ll be the first to admit I was hesitant about the Cowboys drafting Lee.  The ‘Boys had such a high grade on him (click here to see their draft board) that they couldn’t pass up the value.

Lee has been magnificent in camp and looks to even have a slight advantage over Jason Williams for the nickel linebacker job.  I detailed the Lee/Williams battle previously.

Prediction: Lee’s snaps will be limited with Bradie James and Keith Brooking ahead of him, but he could make a real impact as a nickel linebacker and special teams player.  He is an instant upgrade over Bobby Carpenter and any big plays he makes will be a bonus for Dallas.

5.  Orlando Scandrick

Scandrick was picked on quite a bit last season, allowing a 62.9 percent completion rate while getting thrown at on 13.9 percent of all snaps–one of the highest rates in the NFL.  Teams will continue to test Scandrick this season with studs Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins outside.

So why will Scandrick improve?  Well, this is more of a hunch than anything, but there seemed to be a disconnect between Scandrick’s statistics and the game film.  He was almost always in position to make a play on the football, yet, for whatever reason, just did not do so.

Prediction: If he can improve his ball skills in the offseason, Scandrick could come down with five interceptions in 2010.

4.  Brandon Williams

Williams missed the entire 2009 season after tearing his ACL.  In his absence, rookie Victor Butler stepped up and showed he can be counted on as a pass-rusher.  The only problem?  Butler isn’t particularly stout against the run (we gave him a D+).

It is essential for Dallas to find a quality backup behind starters Ware and Spencer, particularly with the duo combining to play 2205 snaps last season.  That number must drop, and Williams is probably better suited to handle the load than Butler.  Williams has reportedly been sensational in offseason activities.

Prediction: Last season, Butler got 125 snaps.  Williams could see as many as 200 this season, particularly on running downs.  Hopefully he can rack up a sack or two in the process.

3.  Martellus Bennett

Bennett has gained more notoriety for his off-field antics than his on-field play.  Still, Bennett’s 2009 season was actually slightly underrated because his blocking was so tremendous (we gave him a B+ in blocking and a B- overall grade).

Despite the myriad of offensive weapons in Dallas, Bennett still has an opportunity to improve this season.  His blocking ability should allow him to hold onto the No. 2 tight end job.  The Cowboys will probably run less two-tight end sets in 2010, but when they do, Bennett will be single-covered.

Prediction: 30 receptions and a couple of touchdowns is a reasonable expectation.  He should also gain more respect as a blocker as long as he can remain consistent in that department.

2.  Dez Bryant

There really isn’t much to say about Bryant.  Everyone knows he is talented.  The only person that can hold back Bryant is himself.

The key to his 2010 production will be if he can overtake Roy Williams for the starting job opposite Miles Austin.  If so, he figures to put up some big-time rookie numbers.

Prediction: I expect Williams to retain his starting gig.  Since we think Williams could have a bounce-back season, it will be hard for Bryant to rack up huge stats without a ton of reps.  If he does not start, 45 receptions for 600 yards and five TDs is still possible.  If he can overtake Williams, however, Bryant has the talent to put up 1,000+ yards and perhaps even double-digits TDs.

1.  Jason Hatcher

Hatcher is essentially the Cowboys’ No. 4 defensive end right now.  So why is he my No. 1 candidate for a breakout season?  First, like Bowen, he will gain more snaps in 2010.

Like I said above, Hatcher tallied 17 pressures last season, despite playing just 391 snaps.  This 4.40 percent pressure rate led all defensive ends.  If he can maintain that rate with increased reps, the 25 or so pressures he will acquire will put him in position for multiple sacks.

Prediction: Hatcher will increase his sack total dramatically in 2010.  Six sacks is a realistic goal–an impressive number for a 3-4 backup defensive end.


Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)

By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks back, we published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, success rates, and big/negative play percentages.  Included in that article was a double-tight (two tight ends) formation called “Ace”:

The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:

24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

“Ace” was the Cowboys second-most efficient passing formation, and they also had a ton of success passing out of other double-tight formations.  Not exactly the statistics you were expecting from “run-oriented” formations?  Me neither. . .which is exactly why passing out of it was so successful last season.

I hate to harp on it again (actually, secretly I love it), but run/pass selection is controlled in large part by game theory.  In a nutshell, game theory is thinking one step ahead of your opponent.  Why perform a surprise onside kick?  Why run on 3rd and 7?  Because your opponent will never be expecting it.

This latter scenario (running the ball on 3rd and medium to long) is one I’ve already examined.  The graph to the left (from AdvancedNFLStats.com) displays the conversion rates of teams on 3rd down in various situations.  The excerpt below is one I wrote in my article on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays, but it explains the graph.

In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5. Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.

The reason behind this has to do with game theory. If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful. Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.

Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett. The two are not independent of one another. Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators. If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.

The passing success of the Cowboys out of “Ace” and other “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down.  There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations.  Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.

Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field.  Instead, it works because of the defense.

Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense).  Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.

So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy?  Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory.  In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation.  To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.

Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight.  In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.

Play selection is dominated by game theory, meaning the actions of other offensive coordinators around the league really should affect those of Cowboys OC Jason Garrett.  It is for this reason that I would love to see the Cowboys do the “unexpected”–pass more out of tight formations (and run more out of spread ones) in 2010.  The theoretical value may be sub-optimal, but the actual value would be maximized.


Dallas Cowboys 16 Best/Worst Running and Passing Formations in 2009

We recently detailed the Cowboys success running and passing out of every formation they ran in 2009.  Today, we will briefly explain why the Cowboys prospered in some formations, yet failed in others.  You can see diagrams of every formation listed below by clicking here.

Note:  To be listed, a formation had to have a sample size of at least 10 runs/passes.

Best Running Formations

1.  I Left/Right (18 runs for 124 yards–6.89 YPC)

The Cowboys had a ton of success out of the standard I-formation (including passing the ball as well).  This could be because the position of the fullback (directly behind center) makes running weakside quite easy.

2.  Wildcat (16 runs for 108 yards–6.75 YPC)

We absolutely love the Wildcat (or Razorback, as the Cowboys call it).  The formation is particularly useful in goal line and other short-yardage situations because its largest weakness, the lack of big-play potential due to the absence of a legitimate pass-thrower, is limited.

3.  Double Tight I (31 runs for 208 yards–6.71 YPC)

The only difference between “Double Tight I” and a standard I-formation is personnel–an extra tight end is substituted for a wide receiver.  This version of Double Tight was much more successful than the Double Tight Strong variety (again likely due to the ease with which the team can run weak side).

4.  Gun Tight End Spread (27 runs for 166 yards–6.15 YPC)

We detailed the effectiveness of Gun TE Spread a few days ago.  The Cowboys do a tremendous job of running out of this “passing” formation–something they don’t do out of Gun Trips.

Worst Running Formations

1.  Weak Left/Right (11 runs for 29 yards–2.64YPC)

We admit 11 carries is not a huge sample size, so we must take this particular statistic with a grain of salt.  In theory, “Weak” should be a useful running formation for Dallas as there is no true “strong side”–and thus the offense can easily run in any direction.

2.  Tight End Trips Left/Right (15 runs for 46 yards–3.07 YPC)

This formation is similar to Gun Tight End Spread, with the exception of an extra wide receiver lined up on the strong side.

3.  Double Tight Left/Right Ace (22 runs for 72 yards–3.27 YPC)

The primary reason for the lack of success running out of this formation, we believe, is the absence of fullback Deon Anderson.  If Anderson is off the field, it might be a good idea for the Cowboys to run out of formations which spread the field to a greater degree than Double Tight.

4.  Strong Left/Right (49 runs for 196 yards–4.00 YPC)

The Cowboys simply had little success running out of any Strong formation, whether it employed two tight ends or not.  We think the reason for this is due to the unbalanced nature of the formation.  With the fullback lined up all the way behind the tackle on the same side as the tight end, it is extremely difficult to run weak side.

To see the best and worst Cowboys passing formations, click page 2 below.


Cowboys Film Study: 2009 Formation Breakdown

Like our film study and stat analysis?  You can buy our entire Cowboys 2009 play database.

Thus far this offseason, we have analyzed a few of the Cowboys’ tendencies when running plays from certain formations and with specific personnel packages.  For example, we noticed the Cowboys average nearly three yards less per play in “Empty Set” formations (as compared to all other formations), are much more successful with tight end Jason Witten in a route, and run a strong side dive play out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent when motioning into it.

Today, we are going to analyze the run/pass ratios and success rates of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009.  If you don’t know the difference between “Gun 3 Wide Pro” and “Double Tight Left Weak Right,” don’t worry–we have diagrams of each formation to help you along.

Below each diagram, you will find stats on run/pass ratio, average yards per run/pass, and analysis of big/negative plays.  We have explained in the past why averages can often be misleading, so understanding the effect of outliers (big and negative plays) can aid you in interpreting the results.

Formations with 20+ play sample size

  • 3 Wide I

12 passes (60 percent)/8 runs (40 percent)

5.25 yards/attempt

3.63 yards/rush

3 sacks (25 percent), five passes 10+ yards (41.7 percent), 1 pass 20+ (8.3 percent)

  • Ace

24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

  • Double Tight I

10 passes (24.4 percent)/31 runs (75.6 percent)

6.30 yards/attempt

6.71 yards/rush

One sack (10 percent), two passes 10+ (20 percent), one pass 20+ (10 percent), four negative runs (12.9 percent), eight runs 10+ (25.81 percent), one run 20+ (56 yards)–3.2 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace

14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

6.0 yards/attempt

3.27 yards/rush

One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

  • Double Tight Left/Right I

3 passes (4.7 percent)/61 runs (95.3 percent)

10.33 yards/attempt

4.93 yards/rush

One pass 10+ (33.3 percent), one pass 20+ (33.3 percent), six runs 10+ (10.4 percent), two runs 20+ (46, 32 yards)–3.5 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Strong Left/Right

9 passes (17.3 percent)/43 runs (82.7 percent)

1.22 yards/attempt

5.58 yards/rush

One sack (11.1 percent), one pass 10+ (11.1 percent), five runs 10+ (11.6 percent), three runs 20+ (36, 33 yards)–3.5 percent, one negative run (1.2 percent)

    Click below to go on to page 2.